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Big League Stew

Masahiro Tanaka sharp in simulated game, September return possible

Mike Oz
Big League Stew
Yankees' Tanaka throws simulated game
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(AP)

The New York Yankees have won six of their past seven going into Thursday's game. They've adopted a horse mask as a good-luck charm and turned themselves into wild-card contenders as the MLB season approaches its final month.

The Yankees might also be getting something else for the stretch run, and it's better than a horse mask. It's their ace back.

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(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Masahiro Tanaka, sidelined since July 8 with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, looked sharp in a 49-pitch simulated game on Thursday morning. The Yankees were encouraged by what they saw from Tanaka and are hopeful he'll be able to return in September.

Tanaka's debut season in the U.S. has been better than many expected. He showed no trouble adapting to the American game, putting together a 12-4 record with a 2.51 ERA in 18 starts. The Yankees feared the worst when Tanaka had elbow pain, but so far he's been able to rehab his UCL tear without needing Tommy John surgery.

In Thursday's simulated game, Tanaka pitched three innings and used all of his pitches. More now from MLB.com's Bryan Hoch:

Tanaka said that he has been feeling only normal soreness, another good sign as he attempts to avoid Tommy John surgery. He expressed dissatisfaction with some of his pitches, having thrown his slider, splitter, curveball and both fastballs in the session.

"I think some of the balls I am throwing, I'm still not able to hit my spots," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "The rust is still there, so I still have some work to do to get back to game-ready."

The Yankees are bringing Tanaka along with the hopes of having him make starts in September, and manager Joe Girardi said that Tanaka will need at least two more sessions against hitters before that can happen. The Yankees want to build Tanaka to at least 75 pitches.

"You have an idea that it's possible that he could come back at some point here," Girardi said.

The Yankees have lost pitchers Ivan Nova and C.C. Sabathia for the season. Losing Tanaka was a blow that many figured would doom the Yankees, whose pitching was shaky to begin with. But thanks to good performances from their young pitchers and a patchwork lineup boosted by July trades, the Yankees are 22-15 since the All-Star break. 

They're 2 1/2 games back for the second AL wild card at the moment. The competition figures to be tough, with the Detroit Tigers also trying to unseat the Seattle Mariners for that final playoff spot.

If the Yankees can get Tanaka back in ace form for a few starts, it might make all the difference.

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Mike Oz is an editor for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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